RIO GRANDE, Alta. — Kreg Alde eliminated everything he didn’t like when he was searching for a way to diversify the fourth generation farm.
He didn’t like cows, horses, sheep or pigs.
“I always have been fond of berry picking,” said Alde, who went in search of the right berry for the northern Alberta orchard.
He eliminated the iconic saskatoon because of its seeds, mealy texture, disease problems and marketing troubles.
He settled on haskap, which Alde believes will be the berry of the future.
“They’re the most nutritious berry going,” said Alde, who now has 17,000 haskap bushes on 35 acres, the largest haskap orchard in Alberta.
“Saskatoons and blueberries are a thing of the past.”
Haskap contains high levels of vitamin C and anti oxidants. The berries grown in Canada were developed at the University of Saskatchewan.
It is also one of the first berries to ripen in the spring, hitting the prime spring market when customers are looking for local, juicy fruit. It freezes well for baking and fruit toppings.
“A berry is a berry, but they come to life when you put them in food or in a liqueur,” said Alde, who operates Broken Tine Orchard with his wife, Lee-Anne.
The orchard, at the west end of Grande Prairie County down kilo-metres of gravel road, is too far away from Grande Prairie to be a successful U-pick operation. Instead, the Aldes want to concentrate on selling to restaurants, grocery stores and wholesale customers.
“I’m after large scale sales.”
Alde said he is close to reaching a deal with a large chain restaurant, which he hopes will bring the public awareness needed to make the berry a household name.
A contract with restaurants and wholesale marketers, would require Alde to ensure food quality and safety.
The family, including children Connor and Nevada and Alde’s parents, Wayne and Colleen, handpick the berries directly into clear plastic clamshell packs for sale in a nearby grocery store and farmers markets.
However, by next year they hope to have an automatic berry picker and a processing facility on the farm to sort, wash, pack and freeze the berries.
Wholesale customers want a guaranteed quality and quantity of fruit, which has prompted Alde and other haskap growers to work toward a grower alliance to ensure a steady supply of fruit that meets high quality standards.
“We want to be the distributor for the other haskap growers.”
The family also farms 2,600 acres of wheat, barley and canola.
Wayne said he shook his head when his son first suggested an orchard as a way to diversify their conventional farm. He became more supportive when he read an article about a successful farm succession plan with a small raspberry orchard that made more money than the main farm.
Lee-Anne said they also wanted a farm diversification project that would encourage their children to stay home and join the family business.
They were also tired of eating fruit trucked in from thousands of kilo-metres away.
“I liked the idea of local fruit, and it tastes good and is nutritious.”
The entire family, friends and neighbours pitched in to help plant the 17,000 bushes and install the drip irrigation lines over the past three years.
“It was a ton of work,” said Alde.
Sheep fescue is seeded between the rows because it keeps down weeds. It is also a delicacy for the local elk, which means they don’t eat the haskap berries, but their sharp hoofs have punched holes in the plastic surrounding the berries and allowed weeds to grow.
Birds are one of the biggest concerns for the orchard, especially cedar waxwings that migrate through each year. However, with 17,000 bushes, the birds have not overtaken the orchard.